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Local Authorities (Historic Buildings Money

Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 27 February 1962

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[ Queen's Recommendation signified.]

Considered in Committee under Standing Order No. 84 ( Money Committees).


Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to make provision for contributions by local authorities towards the repair and maintenance of buildings of historic or architectural interest, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the provisions of that Act in the sums payable out of such moneys by way of Rate-deficiency Grant or Exchequer Equalisation Grant under the enactments relating to local government in England and Wales or in Scotland.—[Mr. Rippon.]

10.41 p.m.

An important statement was made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer today which dealt almost entirely with the difficulty the Government are in over Government expenditure and their attempts to keep it down to the very minimum. No new burdens must be taken on. It is historic to note that on the same day that the Chancellor saw fit to give this warning to the nation the first Money Resolution put before us increases expenditure and not one irate Conservative Member has risen to ask how much is involved or to remind the Financial Secretary of what his Departmental head said earlier today.

I rise because I am concerned about this in more than one way. We have a housing problem and we have been told by the Government, both in the House and in Committee, that they cannot afford a single penny more for housing people who are in slums or in houses which are far from satisfactory in providing the accommodation which we should like to provide. Yet here we have the Government prepared to back a Private Member's Bill which will mean additional expenditure.

Yes. The reason why we have this Money Resolution is that taxation is involved. It if were not involved, the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) who moved so eloquently a few Fridays ago the Second Reading of the Bill—and I listened with considerable pleasure to the way he presented the case—would not require a Money Resolution at all. As the hon. Member remembers, his Bill deals with two possible ways in which a local authority can help historic houses. The plight of the stately homes of England was well and truly stated that day from 11 o'clock in the morning until 3.20 in in the afternoon. We remember the prolonged effort of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government on that occasion, related less to the merits of the Bill than to the fact that a Bill dealing with widowed mothers was coming coming on later and he did not wish that to be decided openly in the House on that day.

The Money Resolution—which does not apply to Scotland—enables local authorities to make a certain contribution to certain houses already on the list of historic houses and, secondly, to make additionally a contribution in respect of other houses, though in that case the local authorities have to refer to the Minister. So in two cases local authorities are going to increase their rate-borne expenditure; but that rate-borne expenditure comes into the aggregate calculation in respect of equalisation grant, or rate deficiency grant as it is probably better known in England, and Scotland comes into it because there are alternatives—[Interruption.]—Hon. Gentlemen should wait for it.

There are alternative formulae in respect of calculation of equalisation grant for Scotland, one of which only, the eleven-eightieths, if it is more favourable to Scotland, would apply. I reckon that in relation to this proposal it might not. That is how Scotland comes into it—if that formula is used in the matter of increased expenditure in England and Wales. I have wondered how any Secretary of State could have dropped such a formula in relation to education grant, but we can depend on the present incumbent of that office to make the worst possible bargain for Scotland. Is it night, however, to encourage additional rate-borne expenditure? Is it right in the Government, who terrorise us, as they did today, with this tale of woe about how every single item of Government expenditure must be carefully scrutinised?

Where are the absentees? Where are the defenders of the taxpayers? Where is the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) who is always so anxious that we must let nothing slip? Not a single one of them is here to question this piece of expenditure, to question whether it is worth while or whether it could wait. I know that there may not be very much in it, but the principle, surely, is the principle of first things first. There are all sorts of other things which we cannot afford, which we cannot have, for which we have to wait.

So, quite apart from inviting the Minister to give us some information as to how much is involved, I think that we are entitled to some explanation why the Government see fit to embark upon this new venture and type of expenditure at a time when we are being warned that everything else must be cut down to the very minimum and when we are denied even an extra penny for houses. Indeed, we are being cut down in the coming year by £1 million not for the stately homes of Scotland but for the homes of Scotland which are an absolute disgrace to Great Britain, cut down on providing for overspill and clearing the slums of Glasgow, and all that. We are cutting down expenditure on that, and yet here we are prepared to adopt a new form of expenditure to encourage ratepayers to spend money through the rates and to get aid from the Government in spending money on the stately homes of England.

I should not be doing my job as a Scottish Member of Parliament if I did not make my vocal protest about this sense of priorities, and call attention to the fact that all those people who are supposedly so concerned about expenditure on social services are not only not vocal tonight but not even present.

10.48 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government
(Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) has put the case very forcefully for this Financial Resolution and has explained the purpose of the Bill. He is, no doubt, aware that when it was put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) it received support from all parts of the House, from hon. Members who felt that local authorities in England and Wales should be given the same permissive powers that Scotland took herself in 1947, because Scotland already possesses the powers, which we are now seeking for England and Wales. I am sure the hon. Member would not deny us this right. We make a great contribution to expenditure in Scotland and we feel that from time to time we might be allowed to spend a little of our own money in our own way.

The hon. Member explained very clearly how the Scottish equalisation grant is linked with the English equalisation grant by a complicated formula set out in the Sixth Schedule to the Valuation and Rating (Scotland) Act, 1956. The way in which it would be affected, as the hon. Member suggested, would be marginal. As far as I can judge, the only way in which Scotland can be affected would be for us to have to give it even more money than we give it now, because the 1956 Scottish Act provides that, whatever happens, the Scottish total must not be less than eleven-eightieths of the English total.

In these circumstances, I am sure that the hon. Member will feel that it is in the interests of Scottish ratepayers that he should seize such crumbs of comfort as exist in the Bill. I am sure that the Committee will want this important Resolution to be carried without too much difficulty.

10.50 p.m.

That is all very well, but the Parliamentary Secretary has not told us anything about the likely cost. Ever since a former Chancellor of the Exchequer told us about the gentleman from Aberdeen who objected to bus fares being lowered because in that way he saved less by walking to his destination, the Scots have rightly kept the English up to the mark in financial matters. I welcome cordially the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), not only on account of the Goschen formula and its application in this matter, but also on account of the historic rôle of the Scots as those who keep an eye on the English in matters of expenditure.

Can the Parliamentary Secretary give us any idea of what sort of amount is likely to be involved by the provisions of the Bill? It is true that it comes only indirectly upon the Exchequer through the grants which have been mentioned, but surely it is the business of a prudent Government, especially when the Chancellor of the Exchequer is giving us such terrible warnings about the need for economy in this and other matters, to have some idea and to communicate it to us about the cost of any Measure which they back in this way.

The Bill relates partly to buildings on the list of historic monuments, about which I have no question to ask, and partly to buildings which are not on that list. The provisions of the Bill are that such buildings should be dealt with under its provisions only with the consent of the Minister of Housing and Local Government. I trust that that provision will be preserved. If it is not preserved, however, there seems to me at least to be a possibility of the abuse of a Measure which, without that consent, might be a little too sweeping. Have the Government, in their almost infinite wisdom but occasional inaccuracy in financial measures, formed an estimate of what would be the result, first, of the Bill in its present form and, secondly, of the Bill if that provision were omitted?

This is no surprise to the Parliamentary Secretary, because the question whether that provision should be omitted was discussed on Second Reading. It had little support, however, from the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), whose Bill it was, and whom I now see expressing with his head the same opinion as he expressed with his voice on Second Reading. That is my question, and I repeat it in a very short form. Have the Government the faintest idea of what the Bill will cost the Exchequer, first, in its present form and, secondly, if the consent of the Minister of Housing and Local Government is not to be required for dealing with buildings which are not on the list of historic monuments?

As the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) knows very well, it is not possible to quantify the amount that will be involved. Part of the expenditure is permissive. We can rely on most ratepayers to see that their councils do not spend excessive sums. I should not like to anticipate what happens in Committee, but I will see that the hon. and learned Member's views are conveyed to his right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who certainly wished to see an increase in the permissive powers in the Bill.

If I may be allowed to speak again for a moment, I would merely say that I made an inquiry. I have expressed no views, but I am of the opinion that this is a matter for the Committee, and if I were on the Committee I should have certain views to express on the matter.

10.55 p.m.

Having been urged by a number of hon. Members not to take part in this discussion, I feel it my bounden duty to say a few words in support of what the Committee is being asked to approve, although the hour is late. I listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross). Indeed, on many occasions I have listened to the hon. Member late into the night—

I wish to say a few words in support of the Measure with which this Resolution is connected. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock made many points and got them all within the rules of order. He talked of the social services. I would remind him and some of his colleagues, with all humility, that I listened to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer this afternoon, and he announced firmly that there would be no cuts whatever in the social services in the measures which he would put before the House. Some of us on this side of the Committee might regret that, but nevertheless that is what he said.

I am reluctant to interrupt the hon. Member, but we are debating a Money Resolution which does not refer to social services.

On a point of order, Sir William. Since my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) raised a question of priorities, is not the hon. Gentleman in order, in arguing the case about priorities, to mention the reductions which he wishes to be made in certain social services to allow this Money Resolution to be implemented? Should he not be allowed to tell us what social services he would like cut in order that this Money Resolution may go through?

No, that would be going much too wide in a debate on a Money Resolution.

I will come back strictly into order, Sir William. In my next point, if the hon. Member had allowed me, I was going to say that this Bill provides a social service—

Is it right, Sir William, for the hon Member to say that he would have got on to the point if I had allowed him to do so? Surely you are in the Chair, not I?

I merely wish to say that this Bill provides a social service inasmuch as it provides for the well-being and continuance of some of these places of historic interest which are enjoyed by a wide variety of people. Some of these buildings Which do not appear in the list which has been mentioned in the debate but are referred to in the Bill, and therefore the Money Resolution applies to them, are buildings which can provide useful housing for people who have not got houses. For that reason, I support the Money Resolution and I hope the Committee will approve it.

11.0 p.m.

I am sure that we were all delighted to see the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) trying to walk the tight rope connected with this Money Resolution. I did not think that his first effort was very successful, but I have no doubt that with the experience that he will gain as a result of opportunities which will be afforded him, he will in due course become expert. We shall be delighted to follow his development in this respect.

I was surprised at the manner in which the Parliamentary Secretary dismissed this matter. We have recently had a number of debates on the Parliamentary control of expenditure. One of the things to which the Plowden Committee draws attention is the necessity to consider very carefully continuing expenditure before approving it. It says that we ought to have some knowledge of what it will involve us in during the years to come. This is true, of course, because one of the troubles in which the Treasury finds itself with continuing expenditure of this kind is that, once it has been authorised by Parliament, the Treasury can do nothing to stop it continuing and snowballing. This is why the Chancellor himself finds great difficulty in connection with a number of his items of expenditure.

It would be out of order for me to mention agricultural subsidies, but, of course, they are one example of what I am saying. However, I do not want to speak about that matter, and I only quote it as the type of thing that happens with continuing expenditure which has been authorised by Parliament and about which the Chancellor can do nothing.

In the light of that, of course, we ought to have had more information as to what this would cost. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross). I am amazed at the slipshod manner in which the Government Front Bench presents these matters. We asked a question last night and the same thing happened. We asked how much money something would cost, as a result of which there were hurried dashings from the bench behind the Government Front Bench to the Box to get the necessary information. Quite obviously the Financial Secretary had not been briefed and did not know very much about the matter at that time.

Tonight we have another example. The Minister presents a Money Resolution and says, "We want you to authorise money for something which will be necessary, but we cannot tell you how much we are asking for." This sort of think places the House of Commons in an impossible position. We are asked to authorise the expenditure of what sum? Is it £1,000 a year, £10,000 a year, £1 million a year, or what is it? I do not know. I should have thought that we ought to have had some information and that it was not beyond the wit of the Minister to gather together some information as to the likely cost of this provision. Even if the hon. Gentleman cannot tell us, I should have thought that the officials could have provided the answer had they been asked.

My hon. Friend is being very complimentary, but I would rather he qualified his remarks.

Will hon. Members please address the Chair, because I should like to know what is going on.

I want my hon. Friend to qualify the remarks he made. He said that it was within the wit of the Government Front Bench to give us some indication of what the cost would be. I did not think that the wit of the Government Front Bench was as high as my hon. Friend indicated.

I always try to think well of my fellow men. Indeed, that is why I am a Socialist. Even about the Government Front Bench, I always think the best. But, if it is beyond the wit of the Government, I have sufficient faith in our very competent civil servants to believe that had they been asked they could have produced some figures about this matter.

How many houses are likely to receive grants for the purpose of keeping them in good order? Someone must have some idea of what it is all about. The hon. Gentleman seemed to say, "Well, we do not know; we cannot tell you." Having said that, he then told us that England would be allowed, by way of a change, to spend its own money as it wished. But that is what England is always doing, spending its own money. There are over 500 English Members of Parliament, and if they cannot spend their own money as they wish I do not know what stops them. We are trying our best to get a fair share for Scotland, but it is a bit of a struggle. The hon. Gentleman ought to realise that Scotsmen as well as Englishmen will have to pay some of this. The Exchequer will incur additional expenditure and Scotsmen will have to pay.

Of course that is so. I have never yet heard that there is no Income Tax in Scotland. We, or some people at least, have often advocated a tax holiday for industry in the Highland counties as an encouragement to development, but up to the present everyone in Scotland pays his taxes on the dot, setting an example to people south of the Border. We shall have to pay in Scotland.

We are delighted that the English, fifteen years after the Scots have done something, now want to copy it. That is customary. That is why we object when we are not allowed to put our ideas to the House of Commons, because it would sometimes save fifteen years—

Order. I do not follow the hon. Gentleman's remarks in relation to the Money Resolution. Every opportunity has been given to Scottish Members to put their views on it.

I agree that at this time of night we usually take the opportunity to put our views forward.

I am glad that the Money Resolution may result in something extra coming to Scotland without Scotland having to spend more to earn it. It is delightful to think that we may have something for doing nothing. I welcome the Money Resolution for that reason, and, by and large, I suport it. I hope that the House will pass it, and I hope that the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), when he has to fight for his Bill in the House, will find the information which we have gained from the Minister helpful, though scanty, in his task of answering the arguments which are likely to be put up as it passes through its various stages. I wish the Money Resolution well and I hope that the House will pass it speedily.

11.9 p.m.

We are grateful to the Minister for whatever information he has been able to give us, but plainly this is not a matter for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. It is for the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to deal with. He is the watchdog of the Treasury, but he seldom barks. Whether he can bite, I do not know, but, judging by the performance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the history of wrong assessments recently, he does not seem to be able to do much. We will give him a chance tonight.

Perhaps the Treasury is chary of making any assessment about anything now. If the lion. Gentleman tells us that the amount is likely to be so much, we are entitled to say, "Are you quite sure? Have you misjudged the matter and made an under-assessment?". However, as Members of Parliament, we are entitled to ask what is the figure the Treasury has decided it is prepared to grant in the coming year for this purpose. We cannot do our work as Members if we do not know. It is no good saying that we cannot be told; this is a very laudable purpose, and so on, but no more. The words of the Chancellor today, telling us that Parliament is always asking him to spend more money, are still ringing in my ears, yet here we have the Treasury asking Parliament to spend more money but not being prepared to say how much is involved. It really is a bit absurd.

Is the Scottish point which has been made such a bad one? There are two formulae, and the eleven-eightieths by which Scotland gets an automatic increase applies only if the other part of the formula does not apply in a particular way. Has that alternative been functioning in recent years? If we cannot be given an answer to that question, I would point out that, since rate deficiency and equalisation grants have already been mentioned, the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Treasury should be aware that the Public Accounts Committee was concerned about the equalisation grant in relation to Scotland and housing.

We in Scotland are concerned about the Exchequer and its outlook towards housing and it is, therefore, understandable that Scottish hon. Members are not prepared blindly to give the Treasury the right to tax us to meet any call for rate deficiency in England and Wales. Scotland will not get a single penny out of this and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) pointed out, we are still afflicted by the curse of this English dominated Parliament, the Treasury, Income Tax and all the other taxes.

We pay more than our contribution but, in this case, we shall get absolutely nothing from it. In fact, the taxpayers of Scotland will be helping to support the rates of England and Wales in the efforts to be made to patch up, repair and maintain historic and stately homes. I have been interested in the speeches that have been made on this subject, especially that of an hon. Member who lives in one of these stately homes. I am not particularly worried about that part of it, but I am concerned about the principle involved.

I am, frankly, worried about the silence of Tory hon. Members. They are, no doubt, busy writing round robins to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Perhaps they are telling the Prime Minister to sack the Chancellor because he failed to keep down Government expenditure. They are so busy protesting that they cannot do their job in the House of Commons—their task of watching every penny of Government expenditure. This is one such item of expenditure which they should be closely watching.

If I could be told how much money is involved in this Money Resolution I might change my mind and not vote against it, for I was taken with the speech of the hon. Gentleman who moved the Second Reading of the Bill, but not so with the prolonged antics—and I cannot call them anything else—of the Parliamentary Secretary. We are entitled to a little more information and I hope that the Financial Secretary, who has been sent here because it is his life to look after Money Resolutions, will oblige. The Financial Secretary's name appears on many Resolutions, but he never has a word to say.

Perhaps tonight the Financial Secretary can give us the Treasury's view on this matter and tell us what the country can afford. He should remember that we are already making a contribution to the upkeep of these stately homes, and it is important to know what additional sums we can afford.

Question put and agreed to.


That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to make provision for contributions by local authorities towards the repair and maintenance of buildings of historic or architectural interest, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the provisions of that Act in the sums payable out of such moneys by way of Rate-deficiency Grant or Exchequer Equalisation Grant under the enactments relating to local government in England and Wales or in Scotland.

Resolution to be reported.

Report to be received Tomorrow.